Nepali Times
A statue for Ramesh


Exactly a year ago this week 12 Nepali workers were brutally slaughtered by an Iraqi terrorist group but Nepalis tempted by higher salaries continue to work in the nation despite the dangers and a government ban.

In the rest of the world the murders sparked outrage and revulsion but in politically-charged Kathmandu the news set off two days of coordinated vandalism, pre-meditated arson of manpower companies and unprecedented attacks against Nepali Muslims.

One of those killed, 19-year-old Ramesh Khadka, had left his lush green village of Lele on the outskirts of Kathmandu two months before he was abducted. Ramesh's body and those of 11 other Nepalis were never found.

On Wednesday, Ramesh's family and neighbours marked the anniversary by unveiling a bust of him in the courtyard in front of the small family home. As people filed past garlanding Ramesh's statue, his relatives broke down and wept. Lalitpur CDO Sthaneswor Debkota was the chief guest and sat at the front reading a newspaper. The grieving family was nevertheless grateful that a government official was present.

Ramesh was the youngest son of a family of four brothers and three sisters. He was schooled only till Grade Seven but was an independent lad, working in a restaurant in the city whose owner also ran Moonlight Manpower Company, the firm that recruited him.

Ramesh's dream was to build a cement house for his family and start a small business.

"He was a simple village boy with small dreams," remembers his father Jit Bahadur Khadka, 57, a farmer. Sitting outside the family house after a day in the paddy fields, Jit Bahadur recalls trying to persuade Ramesh to delay his trip. "Wait till you're a little older, then we will send you wherever you want," he implored. But Ramesh persuaded the family to collect Rs 200,000, most to be used to pay Moonlight and the rest for his expenses.

Ramesh said he would be able to send back money to repay loans in a few months. "Don't worry, I will be fine," Jit Bahadur's voice breaks as he recalls his son's final words just before he saw him off at the airport on 3 July last year.

On the afternoon of 1 September, a video clip of the cold-blooded murders (one man was beheaded, the others were shot) was aired by Al Jazeera and relayed by Indian news channels. Nepali stations found the footage too gory to broadcast.

Even as Kathmandu erupted in riots, thousands of poor, rural Nepali youth were waiting to go to Iraq circumventing a government ban on working there. Nine thousand Nepalis were stranded in Bombay alone after waiting several days to board flights to Iraq via Jordan. In Lele another young man was preparing to leave for Iraq even as news of the abductions came.

Although it was and still is illegal to send workers to Iraq there are still myriad ways to circumvent it. There is a heavy demand for workers willing to go to such a dangerous place, and Nepalis are desperate enough to be tempted by the three times higher salaries in Iraq compared to Kuwait or Qatar.

Most are recruited by agencies in Nepal who pretend not to know they are Iraq-bound. The workers are picked up in Jordan by middlemen and taken into Iraq where many work as cleaners or cooks in American military bases. Many ex-British and ex-India Gurkhas and former Nepali security personnel are today employed by private security contractors in Iraq.

The families of the 12 killed last year received Rs 1 million each from the government, Ramesh's family used a part of it to erect his statue. However, under US law the dependents could be entitled to much more money if they can prove their sons were working for US contractors in Iraq. Jit Bahadur recalls that just before he left, Ramesh had indicated that he might be "cooking for the Americans".

By evening, the guests had left. Jit Bahadur and his family sat in the veranda. All they had was a statue to remind them of Ramesh.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)